1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 1:178-80.



The other correct and regular poet of the time [in addition to Henry Mackenzie] was Dr. Blacklock, who also, to his great credit, at once recognised and applauded the new light [of Robert Burns]. His poetry is of the same smooth and characterless description, but his story is a touching one; he was blind from his infancy, but was so kindly guarded and served both by relations and friends that, though without means of his own, he acquired a classical education, or at least enough of it to qualify him for the Church of Scotland, not much more exacting then than was the Church of England, when she received Crabbe with nothing but a little Latin into her bosom. He got a living, but his parishioners were not satisfied with their blind pastor, and after an interval of discomfort he left them in the hands of a substitute, reserving some portion of the stipend to live upon, and with this came to Edinburgh, where he received into his house young men attending the University, and was himself received into the genial society of the place. He got a good and tender wife notwithstanding his blindness, and a great deal of that respect mingled with compassion, which a man, so heavily burdened in the way of life, almost invariably inspires, but which perhaps is always a half-humiliating sympathy. Poems with such titles as Ode to Aurora on Melusa's Birthday, Ode to a Young Gentleman bound for Guinea, etc., sufficiently indicate the character of his verses. In the short memoir which we have of him, written by Mackenzie, there are a great many special quotations made, and lines selected, to show that, notwithstanding his blindness, he was capable of describing nature. This, of course, must have been simply in imitation of the lavish colours, the purple evenings and rosy mornings of the poets; but there is a pathetic correctness in his enumeration of the yellow crocuses and purple hyacinths, which touches the heart. He was a good man, and, considering his infirmity, prosperous and fortunate. But the consciousness of this disability appears to have kept him somewhat sad, and his later life seems to have been touched with melancholy from a very natural cause. "Some of his later poems express a chagrin, though not of an ungentle sort, at the supposed failure of his imaginative powers; or," the Man of Feeling [Mackenzie] adds, "at the fastidiousness of modern times, which he despaired to please." Poor gentle poet! — his Muse, his gift of Song, had been the sole ground upon which he had risen into local reputation; and there are few more moving occasions for at least a sentimental sympathy. We feel with him, even if we smile at the hot but weak indignation with which he stigmatises the new standards — standards, alas! which he could never come up to, and which settled his fate.

Such were his efforts, such his cold reward,
Whom once thy partial tongue pronounced a bard.
Excursive on the gentle gales of spring
He rov'd, while favour imp'd his timid wing,
Exhausted genius now no more inspires;
But mourns abortive hopes and faded fires.
The short-lived wreath, which once his temples graced,
Fades at the sickly breath of squeamish taste,
Whilst darker days his fainting flames immure
In cheerless gloom, and winter premature.

Again we say poor poet! He had as much right to call the new influences which condemned his old-fashioned rigid verse, "a squeamish taste," as they had to break up the, foundations and scatter the waning honours of that lingering, feeble superstructure, which had been elongated like a house of cards upon the system of Pope. He showed his insight above any of the other tuneful brethren by recognising that his day was over, and his laurels incapable of supporting that "sickly breath." These discontented verses are the swansong of the ending age. The Man of Feeling was conscious, for his own part, of no such failure.